School Officials Sue to Stop Equal Funding for Md. Charters

Published July 1, 2005

A decision this May by the Maryland State Board of Education to give charter schools throughout the state the same funding as other public schools has sparked a federal lawsuit.

Baltimore and Prince George’s County school officials filed a circuit court complaint against the directive the week of May 24. Although the state board of education backpedaled by telling charter schools to return a fraction of their funding to public school systems for administrative services, public school administrators were not mollified.

Opponents of the equal funding rule said the state board’s decision means Baltimore City would have to strip essential services from all students to come up with an additional $13 million for charter schools. Maryland State Teachers Association President Pat Foerster told the Baltimore Sun on May 24 that if left unchallenged, the “unwise and overreaching” directive would wreck public schools’ finances while profiting the private companies that operate some charter schools.

State Education Board member David F. Tufaro told the paper the board knew the funding plan wasn’t perfect, but “part of the purpose was also to force the parties to work it out.”

Ruling Clarified 2003 Law

The Maryland law, which passed in 2003, says any charter school operating in the state is eligible for the same per-pupil amount as traditional public schools. The state board’s May ruling was the result of requests from parents and charter school advocates to clarify wording in the 2003 law that suggested school boards should provide charter schools the same amount of money as traditional public schools. The wording was unclear, and charter school advocates wanted the board to require local districts to comply with the legislation.

The state board’s ruling gives charters more control over their financing and makes them less dependent on fundraising. Education reform activists hailed the decision as a step in the right direction. Center for Education Reform (CER) President Jeanne Allen commended the state board for “acting courageously to implement the original intent of the law and reaffirming that all public school kids in Maryland are to be treated fairly and equally.”

“Although the rest of the state’s charter law leaves a good deal to be desired, funding parity is the one area where charter schools are on equal footing with the traditional public schools,” explained Dr. Kirk A. Johnson, a Heritage Foundation senior policy analyst.

Few Charter Schools Opening

CER traditionally has rated Maryland as one of the weakest states in the nation for charter schools because it has only one–Monocacy Valley Montessori School in Frederick County, which opened before Gov. Robert Ehrlich Jr. (R) signed the 2003 law legalizing charter schools in Maryland. But 17 more may be opening across the state this fall, including five in Baltimore and another seven public schools in the city that want to convert to charters.

Charter schools in Maryland are publicly funded and must receive approval from the local board of education. The Maryland state department of education explicitly states, “a charter school is a public school.” Unlike other states, Maryland does not allow other institutions or groups to approve a charter school.

“It’s a shame that no [new charter] schools have opened since Maryland’s charter school law passed in 2003,” said Dan Lips, a policy analyst for Americans for Prosperity, a national grassroots organization. “This law should be improved to allow more schools to be created. Charter schools would benefit both students and teachers by offering greater flexibility.”

Obstacles Could Fall

If Maryland school boards begin to approve more charter school applications, the funding law decision decreases the charters’ need to raise money to compensate for their lack of public funds. Since the state board gives charter schools control over how their funds are spent, the ruling could ease some of the obstacles charter schools face during the start-up phase.

“Hopefully the debate will soon move beyond the ‘money’ aspect with regards to charter schools in Maryland,” Maryland Public Policy Institute President Christopher Summers said. “Success should not be measured, and too often it is, by how much per-pupil expenditure is increased, but instead by the end result–a well-educated child.”

Alison Lake ([email protected]) is managing editor at the Maryland Public Policy Institute.